Back in Touraine after a stint in Paris, this short film is a riff on the Paris-country push-me-pull-you, something I know a little bit about… It may seem a bit biased, because it is. You just have to say “Champs Elysées” to a Parisian and they say “La plus belle avenue du monde !” Excuse me, but it’s just a luxury shopping precinct arranged in a straight line. And since 13 November, if you carry a bag you can expect to have it turned inside out at every shop.
The charms of ne0-ruralism is another thing, and a subject I shall return to. In the meantime, if you want to see this profound, game-changing cinematographic oeuvre – click here!
Today, 1 December 2015, Geraldine and I are in Paris. This morning we went for an hour’s walk through our arrondissement, the 11th – the district that bore the brunt of the terrorist attacks on November 13th. The memorials remain – a photo on a door, showing the young woman who lived at that address, killed at the Bataclan – and there are many signs of heightened security, such as patrols of heavily armed police at sensitive spots. But the hardy Parisians are back in business, and back on the café terraces. During that hour’s walk, I filmed anything and everything that caught my attention and put those adventitious glimpses together, in chronological order, to make a short film, accompanied by a 1949 Francis Lemarque song, À Paris.
Click here to watch the film on YouTube.
The other day, my daughter – Lizzie – asked me to recommend films that address the subject of acting, and the rapport between actors and directors, in movies. I gave her a long list, but top of that list was Symbiopsychotaxiplasm.
This extraordinary 1968 docu-drama is in two parts, “Take 1” and “Take 2 and a half”, with over 30 years elapsing between the two. It is the work of African-American director William Greaves (1926-2014) and consists of a screen test in Central Park. Several different couples are screen tested, with a first film crew filming them, a second film crew filming the first film crew filming them, and a third film crew filming not only the second crew filming the first film crew filming them, but also anything that happens around the screen test, involving for example curious passers-by – including one delightful intervention by a highly educated homeless man.
The curious title comes from a social science philosopher, Arthur Bentley, who coined the term symbiotaxiplasm to describe all events that human beings are involved in, affecting their character and environment. William Greaves added the “psycho” for mental mechanisms involved in creative processes. The film also owes something to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, Stanislavsky, Chaos Theory, mysticism and – well, the 1960s…
Fundamentally, it is about how actors and directors work together – with the added bonus that in 1968 the technical crew mutinied, rebelling against William Greaves whom they considered totally incompetent, and filming their mutinous discussions to add to the debate – confirming the hypothesis that “everybody wants to be a director”. It has also been called “a site of creative tension between individual vision and collective endeavours” and, by Steven Soderbergh – largely responsible for saving the film from oblivion – “the ultimate reality piece”.
In the second “take”, two of the actors and the director and crew get together over 30 years later – a touching encounter, seeing how everyone has changed – and shoot a sequel screen test, again in Central Park, after a showing of “Take 1”. The two films were first screened in 2001.
Even if this metatextual “happening” idea does not appeal to you, it is great fun watching people interacting back in 1968 – nearly half a century ago. Everyone smokes, and the attitudes seem at once modern and dated, by turn. The Actor’s Studio cast show just how varied the same scene – a woman suspecting her boyfriend/husband of being homosexual – can be played. In its way, it is a kind of Master Class.
Last night, a vernissage was held for a new exhibition of photo-montages by members of the Caméra Photo Club du Lochois (CPCL) in the Loches Hôtel de Ville, a beautiful 16th-century building that is part of the Porte Picois, one of the ancient fortified gates of the town. Click here for an article (in French) about this exhibition from La Nouvelle République. The main reception room of the Hôtel de Ville (see photo above, with the President of the CPCL, Didier Gosselin, addressing the assembly) has been wallpapered in red tartan in preparation for the upcoming twinning of Loches with Saint Andrews in Scotland.
The CPCL has been going for half a century and is very active on all fronts. Some years ago, it received a donation of wooden boxes which, upon being opened, revealed a historical treasure: over 200 glass-plate stereoscopic images of Loches dating from 1908 to 1921 – intended for viewing with a wooden handheld stereoscope – showing views of daily life in the town, the local countryside, the flooding of the river Indre, gymnastic events, early automobiles, military manoeuvres, and much more. Putting over 1,000 man-hours into the enterprise, the CPCL took digital scans of the images and painstakingly restored them. The result is a unique archive, a 3D DVD (3D glasses provided) that transports you straight into the past, a century ago.
This is early 20th-century Oculus Rift, the dawn of virtual reality, and time travel rolled into one. The DVD, “Loches à la Belle Epoque”, is a unique example of how a local photo club can bring the past to life for the whole local community.
It’s now a more or less open secret in earnest cultural circles that I’m about to make inroads into film-making, so the moment has come to declare an interest in order to pre-empt any accusations of plagiarism. The film I adore, and would love to have made, is My Winnipeg (2007). The director and writer, Guy Maddin, has achieved the impossible.
Mr Maddin blends autobiography and factual or fictional statements about his home town, turning it into one of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities with a visual vernacular all of his own. It is unfettered delirium, pure surrealism, verbal and ocular poetry of the highest order, every black and white edge-blurred scene fuzzed with snow. And over it all presides his overwhelming, sinister mother, with her fear of birds and grapnel-like clutch on him and his siblings.
The silent movie-style filming, interleaved with shadowplay animation, the refusal to allow any distinction between reality, memory, dream and fantasy, the euphoric humour, the melodramatic voice-over that pulls all the drawstrings to give the whole credibility – this is what film-making was once, and should always be. Where else does one find anything like this, except perhaps in the hands of the Soviet director Dziga Vertov, possibly one of Maddin’s inspirations? I could go on, but everything you might want to know about where this movie came from is online.
They call it a “mockumentary” or a “docu-fantasia”. It is a grid of a secret city, right on top of the named one. It is the portrait of a place that nobody would have thought deserved a portrait. a hymn to the unbridled soarings of the parochial imagination. It is about someone desperate to leave Winnipeg, but psychologically hamstrung and unable to do so. This is the most gorgeously wild hallucination I’ve ever seen. It shows how the language of film can be appropriated to uses that no-one thought possible. Forget Bunuel. Meet Mr Maddin. There are no easy pigeon-holes for this sort of thing. It is art, artifice, parody, beauty, seriousness, frivolity, illusions, delusions and reverie, all rolled into one glorious whole.
Didier Raas is a pharmacist in Loches. He is also an expert mycologist, so as October comes round and the well-nigh 4,000 hectares of the Forêt de Loches bristle with multi-coloured mushrooms popping up through the carpet of newly fallen leaves, he is definitely “a fungi to be with”.
Didier has been taking eager groups of amateur mushroom-pickers into forests for 30 years and helping them understand the contents of their wicker baskets. Today was no exception. Our little band thronged round him as he took our pickings and arranged them along a felled log, grouped according to family.
There is quite simply nothing Didier Raas does not know about mushrooms, toadstools and fungi in general. He talked us through the anatomy of the mushroom – the cap, ring, gills, spores, stem, volva and mycelium – pointing out the extraordinary differences in texture, friability, colouring and odour, from one mushroom that smelled unmistakably of the welding gas acetylene, to others that smell like washing detergent, locomotive smoke, clementines, geraniums and even a seaweedy high tide. No mycologist worth his spores should smoke or wear perfume or aftershave, says Didier. Surprisingly, not a single mushroom we picked smelled of… well, mushrooms.
The question that was on everyone’s lips, as we peered proudly or shamefacedly into our baskets – the elephant in the forest, so to speak – was “Is it edible?” Every now and then, Didier’s face lit up and he said, “Yes, indeed. A fine specimen!” More often than not, though, the answer was in the negative.
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But there are 2,500 varieties of mushroom in this particular species and only four of them are edible.”
“Beautiful, isn’t it? But instant diarrhoea, I’m afraid.”
“Look how similar these two look! This one’s delicious, but this one will kill you!”
At one point, an elderly gentleman next to me who was looking increasingly crestfallen chucked his mushrooms on the ground and discreetly made his exit. The death sentences continued unabated.
“Now there’s an interesting thing about this family of mushrooms. They’re perfectly OK to eat, unless you drink alcohol. If you drink alcohol they can kill you. There’s a court case going on in Nantes at the moment. A woman who fed them to all of her dinner guests, knowing full well that only her husband would be drinking during the meal.”
He took each of our baskets and one by one tossed aside the noxious ones. “This belongs to a lethal family. The funny thing is, you have no symptoms for 14 days, then it kills you.”
“And this – well it makes you sweat like a pig, weep and go blind and only injections of atropine every 10 minutes will save your sight.”
“Ah yes, a toadstool that makes you feel as if your legs are dropping off. The pain lasts six months and is so intense that only massive doses of morphine can make life bearable.”
“Didier, is this one edible?” “Yes, it is. But look out for its cousin. Almost identical, but with a very fine red line just here, around the gills. Absolutely deadly.”
“Can I eat this?” “Yes, but not too many, please. Since Chernobyl, it absorbs radioactive Caesium at a very high rate. In Russia, they drop pamphlets on forests by plane to warn people against picking these fellas.”
“Aha! Eat that, and you’ll be seeing pink elephants within 30 seconds.”
By this time, everybody was sticking very close to Didier, as if mushroom Armageddon was approaching and he was our sole Redeemer. The question now on everyone’s lips was, “How can we ever go mushrooming without Didier?” Didier smiled knowingly. Clearly the answer was, “Forget it. You can’t”. But Didier is on a loftier plane altogether, in the end. You see, fundamentally he couldn’t care less whether a mushroom is edible or not. He finds them all beautiful in their different ways. It also turned out that he knows how to identify apples just by looking at their cross-sections, horizontally and vertically. One thing our little trip into the forest definitely taught all of us was the enormous variety of mushrooms out there, and how many of them were terminally toxic. But in the end it’s a case of “The mushroom-eater is dead, long live the mushroom!” Verily, if you are one of those who think that life’s too short to stuff a mushroom, Didier Raas is not your man.
This outing, on a day of resplendent sunshine, was a fascinating insight into that barely visible world of pretty domed caps shunting up beneath our feet. But when the visit was over, like the elderly gentleman before us, we discreetly emptied our basket onto the forest floor and headed for Loches market before it closed. No offence, anyone. There’s a Dutchman there who grows mushrooms in his cellar, under controlled conditions – Paris mushrooms, shiitake – and accepts forest mushrooms such as pieds de mouton, girolles and cêpes – from mushroom Maharishis such as Didier.
To hell with the expense! We just don’t want to die…
Throughout France, Southern Touraine is known for its goat’s cheese, generally available in either fresh, semi-hard or hard consistencies, and often rolled in salt and pine ash. There are goat farms everywhere, but one of the more interesting is La Ferme du Cabri au Lait near Sepmes, run by Sébastien Beaury and Claire Proust – not least because their goats are fed organic grain and allowed to roam free in a green meadow, rather than caged up in a barn. There are some 100 of the latter, of the hardy Alpine Chamois variety, and their milk is used to produce faisselle, cylindrical Sainte Maure cheese, round petit Cabri cheese, goat yoghurt and confiture de lait.
Both Sébastien and Claire are neo-ruralists, having moved from the town to the country in 2009. They’ve produced a thriving affair, but still have to hold down regular jobs to keep the goat business running. Because of time restrictions, the goats are only milked once a day, in the morning, and the small production is sold through local organic cooperatives. When we visited, they had no produce left to sell. They also grow aromatic and medicinal plants. The goats’ eyes have eerie horizontal, rectangular slit-shaped pupils, giving them depth perception in their peripheral vision – 320 degrees as opposed to the 120 degrees of human vision – to help avoid predators. Predators, on the other hand, like certain cats, have vertical-slit pupils which are adapted to homing in on a prey. Mingling with them in the meadow is a moving experience, since they love to rub up alongside people. “My Caroll raincoat!” wailed one young woman in our group as a goat pushed its nose into her raincoat pocket, then pulled out the lining and starting chewing on it.
Goat’s cheese is famously low in fat and a healthy option, but production does have its inhumane side. When the kids are born, the male goats are taken off and butchered, partly for meat – though not common fare on the menu in France – and partly for the rennet that is extracted from their stomachs. The latter is bottled and used in the cheese making to accelerate coagulation and separate curds and whey after the starter culture is added to the milk. In other words, your innocent little goat’s cheese is the product of mass infanticide, not to mention an unashamedly sexist cull. Vegetable rennet exists, but is less popular because less effective, and genetically engineered animal rennet exists too, involving no harm to baby animals. However, when you buy your goat’s cheese, the label rarely tells you what kind of rennet has been used. In a week in which the WHO has declared processed meat a carcinogen, the question of man’s inhumanity to animals is once again being kicked around, and dairy production should not be overlooked.
Like 13% of the young farmers in Touraine, Sébastien and Claire have taken the organic road. They have also opened their doors to visitors, being a “ferme pédagogique”. If you’re in the area, arrange a visit!
“I believe that street photography is central to the issue of photography—that it is purely photographic, whereas the other genres, such as landscape and portrait photography, are a little more applied, more mixed in with the history of painting and other art forms.” – Joel Meyerowitz
In D. H. Lawrence’s short story “The Man Who Loved Islands”, the protagonist has an obsessive desire to live on his own island and moves from one to another, becoming increasingly isolated from his fellow man. My own discovery of three of the islands off the French Atlantic coast has worked in the reverse direction sequentially if not existentially, from the most isolated to the most populated. The Ile D’Yeu first, only accessible by boat. Then Ile de Ré, a relatively small but picture-perfect place, with blue-shuttered, white former fishermen’s cottages and streets lined with hollyhocks, accessible by bridge and very much Paris-sur-Mer in terms of human fauna. And now, the Ile d’Oléron, the largest of the three, also connected to the mainland since 1965 by bridge. The latter is the least prettified of the three, but makes up for it with amazing natural beauty and a certain breathtaking wildness whereas the Ile de Ré, for example, seems entirely crafted by the hand of man.
We stayed in a small hotel directly on the shore near Saint Trojan les Bains, with marshland (Le Marais des Bris) and a magnificent forest of maritime pines on the southern tip of the island. The seascapes are huge, with mussels growing on wooden structures on the mudflats, people digging for cockles and giant jellyfish stranded by the tide. When the water turns, the sea reportedly rises as fast as a galloping steed, though we thought better of acquiring a galloping steed to test this theory which seemed entirely tenable. The coastal bird life is spectacular, with many herons and egrets.
The coastline of the ile d’Oléron is dotted with brightly painted fishermen’s cabins, often turned into artisan’s workshops these days, and, apart from the salterns, one of the main attractions here is oysters and oyster farming. Go to Fort Royer if you want to see this operation on a larger scale.
We went off-season, in October, and the locals all seemed to be staggering after the summer invasion of tourists, who on whole they appear to hate with a vengeance.
Driving through the oyster farming region on the east coast, we passed one hut that had a seafood shop and café, advertising in big coloured lettering “Huitres – Dégustation sur Place”, with tables and chairs on a little covered terrace overlooking the waterways. We parked and perused the seafood menu and lists of oyster platters. A man working on a tractor pointedly ignored us so went to the shop to order. “Oh no,” said the teenage girl behind the counter, “You can’t eat oysters here. It’s winter. It’s far too cold.” I pointed out that it was not winter, but autumn, that it was a lovely sunny day, and that we wanted to eat oysters – it was, indeed, the reason why we had stopped the car. “We’re far too busy to serve only two people,” she said, “and anyway, you’re the first customers of the day.” Clearly being the first customers of the day, even though it was three o’clock in the afternoon, was not perceived as an advantage and she would have preferred none whatsoever. I thought of mentioning the pointlessness of having giant signs luring oyster-lovers off the road when serving oysters appeared to be the last thing on earth that she wanted to do, but pointlessness seemed to be the order of her day so we retired, accepting defeat with a heavy heart. After all, there were other places. The world was our oyster…
We drove to La Cotinière, a modest little fishing village on the west coast of the island and found an eatery that advertised oyster platters. “Sorry,” said the waitress, “our man who opens the oysters and prepares the platters has gone home.”
This was getting serious…
“O Oysters,’ said the Carpenter,
You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?’
But answer came there none –
And this was scarcely odd, because
They’d eaten every one.”
Seeing our crests fall, as they were now getting into the habit of doing, she added cheerfully, “But there’s an oyster seller just next door. Get your oysters there and you can eat them here.”
The small deep-sea oysters were 7.40€ for 26, about half the cost of what we’d have paid in a mainland supermarket, and the oyster seller gave us plates and knives, telling us to bring them back when we’d finished. The contrast with the roadside venue in terms of customer service and simple humanity was complete. So grateful were we, indeed, that we returned to the same establishment for dinner, but the accommodating waitress had been replaced by a shabby waiter so utterly lacking in class and savoir faire that he was almost worth the detour in himself – no water on the table, no salt and pepper, a seafood platter (albeit cheap and cheerful) with no implements to extract winkles from their shells and only one thin slice of lemon for the two of us, no shallot vinegar for the oysters. When he opened the white wine, after sloshing half a glass on the table and not wiping it up, he tossed the cork and metallic cover into the ice in the ice bucket. Shortly thereafter, we overheard him boasting about his years of experience in the catering trade to some nearby locals. Once again, we sensed that here was someone who was reeling, punch drunk from the blows of the tourist season and whose world-weary incompetence was just that – “nothing personal”.
Our hotel manager was no exception. We’d read the highly favourable TripAdvisor reviews before coming and the owner had responded with withering irony to the very few mildly critical ones, so much so that we built up a perfect photofit of her before meeting her. We were not to be disappointed. On arrival, I asked if there was a WC I could use and she said “Oh yes, we’re very modern here.” Her subsequent ripostes were in the same cavalier, nonchalantly sardonic vein. Being October, we’d negotiated a good deal on the room, but after the first evening dining in the expensive hotel restaurant, we did not return, purely for budgetary reasons. Each time she saw us leave or return, her stony glare confirmed that our failure to continue patronising her restaurant was a calamitous blot on our escutcheon. I sensed a sting coming, and come it did. Our little dog, Alec, whom she’d accepted without demur when booking, now had to pay for his stay – “supplément chien” as it said on the bill, a fact that she’d neglected to mention, or more probably had invented post hoc ergo propter hoc. It was no mean sum. Alec was naturally unable to cough up, so I came to his rescue – noblesse oblige… and frankly the least I could do for a Maltese terrier.
There’s something highly practical, but poetically tragic, about connecting islands to the mainland by bridges and tunnels, like delivering a slow lethal injection through an intravenous drip. What happened to that precious stone set in silver seas, which serve it in the office of a wall or as a moat defensive to a house against the envy of less happier lands? One senses that if it were a little bit more difficult for tourists to get here, and if they could leave their diabolical gas guzzlers on the mainland, the Ile d’Oléron locals would be a happier tribe. Be that as it may, this island is a place of exceptional natural beauty, the air is intoxicatingly pure and outside the evident abominations of July and August it comes quietly into its own. Here “off” is definitely the new “on” and “low” the new “high” – an opinion that the gentleman in the photo below would, I feel sure, endorse, if he could stir himself to do so.